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  • jerry woods

5 key steps to prepare your worksite for winter

Winter's almost here, and for the construction industry, that means keeping employees as warm and safe as possible during cold-weather construction operations.

For those companies, safety mandates, as well as considerations and procedures from organizations like the O.S.H.A. (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), The C.D.C. (Centers for Disease Control), and N.I.O.S.H. (National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health), can mean the difference between a safe winter job site and a hazardous one. When it comes to safe cold-weather operations, managers need to keep these key issues in mind.

1. Preventing workers from slipping on icy surfaces

O.S.H.A. asks companies to focus on fall prevention issues whether it’s watching out for employees teetering several stories above the ground on scaffolding or marching across ice-covered grounds. O.S.H.A. suggests employees wear footwear with adequate traction when working at winter construction sites to reduce the chance of slipping. In addition, they suggest short steps and a slower walking gait can go a long way in maintaining one's balance.

2. Keeping worker exposure to freezing temperatures to a minimum

According to N.I.O.S.H., working in extreme cold temperatures for long periods of time can lead to workers being susceptible to health emergencies brought on by cold stress or exposure.

Cold weather can cause hypothermia, trench foot, frostbite, and chilblains — a condition that can result in itching, inflamed ulcers when repeated and prolonged exposure to cold damages blood vessels.

If work cannot be rescheduled, employers must provide employee-warming stations with hot drinks that are accessible during breaks. N.I.O.S.H., also recommends the use of more employees in shorter shifts to reduce exposure time and physical exertion. For employees, N.I.O.S.H. recommends dressing in warm loose layers for adequate blood flow and insulation from the cold. Clothing items like warm socks, gloves, insulated boots, and hats can keep the cold from affecting a worker's extremities.

3. Ensuring safety during snow and ice removal operations

Shoveling snow can be extremely strenuous, especially for those individuals who do not engage in regular cardiovascular activity. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 11,000 people are hospitalized each year for injuries or cardiac issues from shoveling snow. Experts say that cold temperatures can constrict arteries, which increases blood pressure and the chance of a heart attack. Therefore, if workers have any heart attack risk factors they shouldn't engage in snow shoveling.

If workers are deemed fit to shovel snow, they should always bend at the knee, keep their back straight, avoid fully loading the shovel, and throw the snow without twisting. If using snow blowers, supervisors should make sure the equipment is grounded to prevent electric shocks.

Heavy snow and slippery ice can also make rooftop or high-altitude removal dangerous. The weight can make older or in-progress roofs unstable, so employers should ensure structural integrity before sending workers up for removal operations. The use of aerial lifts and ladders is an option, as long as employees are provided with the correct fall protection equipment (harnesses, straps, etc…)

4. Operating vehicles and equipment safely

According to O.S.H.A., employers should train all vehicle and equipment drivers for winter driving and ensure that all operators are properly licensed. Vehicles should be properly maintained and stocked with emergency items like flashlights, flares, jumper cables, blankets, nonperishable food, and water.

5. Ensuring the structural integrity of materials

While most construction tasks can be carried out with enough strategically placed warming equipment, some operations such as concrete and masonry-related work, painting, and drywall finishing can take much longer and even fail if the proper precautions aren't taken.

For example, if concrete is to reach necessary strength levels, it can't be allowed to freeze for the first 24 hours after being poured or placed.

Structural considerations are also a factor in a great deal of masonry work, including bricklaying. The same principle that applies to concrete applies in masonry. The material in the case mortar mix must be kept from freezing and at warm-enough temperatures during the initial phases of installation to perform properly.

While paint and drywall finishing materials are subject to the same temperature requirements the coatings can take a long time to set up or dry. As far as joint compound or drywall mud is concerned, temperature and humidity have everything to do with drying time.

In the worst-case scenario, it can take days for joint compound to dry sufficiently so that crews can move on to painting or applying other wall finishes.

The rule of thumb with any cold-weather material installation is contractors should follow manufacturers' guidelines to ensure that the finished product functions as expected.

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